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Ceramic Artists In Kansas City Push Boundaries, Engage And Provoke

A celebration of clay — in all its forms — is underway. More than 100 ceramics exhibitions are on view in Kansas and Missouri, timed with the National Council on Education for the Ceramics Arts (NCECA) conference in Kansas City. 

But as more artists experiment with digital tools, some of the artwork on display hardly seems like clay. Case in point: Unconventional Clay, an exhibition at Project Space in the Bloch Building at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. 

"When we think about ceramics, sometimes people think about sculpture or functional ceramics, and we wanted to get away from that," says Catherine Futter, director of curatorial affairs and co-curator of the show with Leigh Taylor Mickelson, exhibitions director for NCECA. Instead, they wanted to encourage a response like this: "Wow, I didn't know that had clay in it."

Credit Peter Lee / courtesy of the artist
courtesy of the artist
Untitled (Conversation Piece: Lips & Legs) (2015), by Dustin Yager.

Near the entrance to the intimate gallery there are two ceramic seats, resembling drum-shaped Chinese garden stools.

But the work called "Untitled (Conversation Piece: Lips & Legs)" brings up social issues, decorated with images of hypodermic needles, Ronald Reagan, and photos by Robert Mapplethorpe — echoes of the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early '90s.

"In this gallery, with people around us, with art around us, that can really engender other conversations," says Futter. 

Interactivity and innovation are embedded in the show, she says, and the 24 artists are pushing the boundaries of ceramics. 

"We couldn't cover everything that's going on in clay today, but we wanted to hit the high points," says Futter, "new processes using 3-D printing and ceramics, digital technologies for designing and fabricating, using different technologies, such as video and projection and electronics." 

As curators, they were looking for the unexpected. "Clay as a material – not an end, in and of itself," she says.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Andy Brayman in his Independence, Missouri, studio.

Digital tools amplify

One of the artists in the exhibition is Andy Brayman, whose studio is in a large, light-filled warehouse in Independence, Missouri.

"My particular interest is in digital tools, and using digital tools, or digitally driven tools, with a really sort of physical material, ceramics, clay," he says. 

There are several workstations in his studio,  and a variety of tools: a kiln, a 3-D printer, and computers. He stands next to a CNC machine  – it’s how he crafted a gray tile piece that curves up a gallery wall at the Nelson-Atkins. 

"Those tiles, even though they’re all triangles, they’re all unique, individual triangles, that would have been cut out on this, and then dried, fired, and applied," he says. 

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Brayman can capture the drawing based on the position of his finger, as he demonstrates.

For Brayman, his drawings are often created with a gesture, recorded through sensors or electronics. He’s able to capture an image by pointing at the computer screen.

"So a lot of the drawings in my work," he says, "are made in this really sort of unusual method of making a computer algorithm that would make thousands and thousands of different drawings that would be sort of geometric in nature, clearly not hand-drawn."

Brayman compares digital media in ceramics to early electronic explorations of sound amplification. Think Bob Dylan swapping his acoustic guitar for an electric.

"A similar way, I think of the digital tool set. It offers some things that you can’t do in an analog world, or in Dylan’s case, like an acoustic world. So I kind of look for things like that – ok, what would I amplify in ceramics?" he says. 

And you’d think digital tools might speed up the process, but that’s not always the case. Brayman says it’s not about efficiency; from an artist’s perspective, it’s about the potential.

Ceramics as installation 

It’s not just professional artists experimenting with digital tools – it’s also students in ceramics. The Kansas City Art Institute opened the fall semester of 2015 with a $750,000 renovation to its ceramics building, including a digital studio with 3-D printers.

Credit Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
KCAI senior Emily Souers in a basement studio space in the ceramics department.

Emily Souers, a senior in ceramics and creative writing, says she's excited about the possibilities of 3-D printing because it's new to the department. 

"The 3-D printing is actually really helpful in ceramics because it allows us to print really precise objects for mold-making. You don't want mistakes in mold-making, absolutely not," she says, with a laugh. 

Souers uses the 3-D printer for three-dimensional sketching, to render shapes digitally. But her primary digital passion, she says, is laser cutting. That's how she turns her ceramics into "the realm of immersive installation."

"I photograph my ceramic work and then I bring it into Adobe Illustrator. And then I render them as black and white vector files, so I can have them laser-cut as silhouettes," she explains.

"And then when I’m displaying my ceramic work – light is projected through the negative space of the laser cuts onto screens."

Back at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, visitors in the gallery are drawn to another kind of installation. As you walk up close to a wall, video projections of eyes open on abstract ceramic hands. Walk away, and the eyes close. For the piece called "Vigilants," Mika Negishi Laidlaw teamed up with two brothers David and Steve Ryan. 

"Mika makes the abstracted hands and yet she collaborates with the twin brothers to incorporate projection into them – and also visitor interaction, to make a complete work, where you almost ask – where is the ceramics, where is the clay?," curator Futter says. 

That's part of the appeal of clay, says Futter — how much an artist can do with it, creating fired and unfired works, permanent or temporary, with or without digital tools. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter, @lauraspencer.

The exhibition, 'Unconventional Clay: Engaged in Change,' including work by 24 artists, is on view through June 12, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-751-1278. 

NCECA 2016, 50th Annual Conference, March 16 - 19, Kansas City, Missouri. For a complete list of area ceramics exhibitions, check here

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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